Monday, November 26, 2018

Puddles of What I'm Enjoying: A 2010 William Goldman Interview and Brian Koppelman Vines

In a new sporadic series, Matt Domino shares a brief look at a bit of pop culture, entertainment, or literature he is enjoying.

In addition to eating turkey, side dishes (specifically the best sweet potato recipe I have ever had in my life), pies, jogging in the freezing and then suddenly mild weather, I spent my Thanksgiving weekend watching about a half an hour’s worth of Vines every evening and listening to William Goldman interviews. I’ll get to explaining that last bit.

Before I do, let me say that I will not remember 2018 fondly. This has been as turbulent a year as I have been alive for. (Though I do feel as if we say that every year except that now in the Trump era that feeling or designation tends to get accelerated and amplified.) I am afraid of what is going to happen to this country—and I say that not as a liberal or a conservative but as someone who is genuinely uncertain about how all of this gets better, how this country changes from its current state without some sort of larger conflict or confrontation, as grim as that sounds. Public figures have used old platforms, new platforms, emerging platforms, and the rhetoric has been spun every way but there are two different sets of realities in this country and, increasingly, the world. And if you are born into one, its becoming harder and harder to see the point of view of the other side. All of that scares me.

I’m afraid of what is going to happen to this planet. And this is a larger and more crippling concern. Something needs to change, but I am not sure that with all of the other turmoil going on in our government and in the world at the moment that “long term survival” is going to be a sexy enough topic. People have jobs to keep, investors to make happy, stockholders to please, and those demands are all usually met with short term thinking.

Selfishly, though, since I am nothing if not selfish, this has been one of the lowest years for me as a writer. I have not been able to secure a byline anywhere. I feel more lost as a fiction writer than I ever have in my life. I have now been working on revisions for a novel manuscript for 10 years and I am not certain if any changes or re-writes I make are of any value or if there is any improvement to my writing at all. What I am saying is that as a “creative person,” in 2018 I have felt more discouraged and more lost than at any other time in my life.

When William Goldman died on November 16th, I wasn’t terribly sad nor did I rush to read the obituaries or in memoriam thinkpieces. That’s because I wasn’t really a William Goldman fan. I think Princess Bride is a fine movie, but I never really understood its everlasting appeal to devotees. Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid is a great movie (with an amazing soundtrack) but I don’t feel the need to rewatch it. All the President’s Men is a great movie as well, but it does kind of lag in spots—at least in my opinion. In all honesty, I mainly knew William Goldman as a guest on Bill Simmons’s podcast and a constant reference in his columns.

And it was through Bill Simmons’s “Remembering William Goldman” episode of his podcast released on November 20th that I truly understood how great William Goldman really was, how great his body of work truly is. But before I get to appreciating William Goldman, we need to talk about some Vines.

In the “Remembering William Goldman” episode of Bill Simmons’s podcast, Brian Koppelman, another longtime guest and friend of Bill’s, calls in to talk about his relationship and appreciation for William Goldman. Brian Koppelman wrote Rounders, created the TV show Billions and has either written or directed or been involved with a lot of other movies (including the excellent 30 for 30 on Jimmy Connors, This is What They Want). I’ve generally liked Koppelman’s appearances on Bill Simmons’s podcast and I used to listen to his podcast, The Moment, back when it was part of the Grantland network. Hearing him discuss his early time as a screenwriter and how William Goldman served as a mentor made me look back casually at Koppelman’s career.

In doing this research I learned that, from 2013 to 2016, Koppelman had created a Vine series called “Six Second Screenwriting Screenwriting Lessons.” Somehow, I had totally missed this. Overall, Koppelman created about ~450 of these Vines. The title of the series is slightly misleading as they are all not directly about screenwriting, the “lessons” or advice are really more directed at anyone pursuing a creative endeavor. In one installment from May 27, 2014, Koppelman states directly that the Vine isn’t a screenwriting tip but instead relays the advice to, “Find someone who needs you to be kind to them and be kind to them.”

Over the Thanksgiving holiday, I binged almost every single one of Koppelman’s Vines late each evening before I would try to continue work on the latest round of revisions to my novel manuscript. What I currently lack the most as a writer is a good sense of routine. I am easily distracted and prone to procrastination more than in any other time in my life. I make excuses not to write in small windows during the week and then spend the wide open windows I have on the weekends, ones I have tried hard to secure, reading articles online or distracting myself with a million other things (e.g. Twitter) until I only have about an hour left to make any progress on my work.

But watching Koppelman’s Vines each evening during the long holiday weekend became an unlikely source of energy and focus. In each small moving screen, here was a voice telling me not to be lazy or to come up with excuses, here was a voice encouraging me to write every day even if it is only for an hour and even if I don’t necessarily get a lot done. There is something surreal about moving a cursor and then hearing Koppelman’s blunt but surprisingly elastic New York voice spring to life consistently and in six second increments for nearly a half an hour. There is also something oddly soothing and fascinating about watching him move on the streets of New York, through seasons, and across years while doling out advice. In some Vines his naturally long, hound-doggish face is clean shaven and especially pronounced; in others, specifically from 2014, he sports a tight, grey beard; in the 2015 and 2016 Vines the beard is longer, slightly curling, and white.

I sat in my childhood bedroom watching these Vines and was able to find a level of focus each evening that I hadn’t had in some time. Or in any case, I found a way to stop thinking about everything else I could be writing or the other ways my career or life could be turning and instead just work on the piece of work that was the most important to me at that moment, which just happened to be a manuscript I have re-written and revised for 10 years.

This leads me back to William Goldman. After repeatedly watching Koppelman’s Vines, persisting with my own work, and relistening to Bill Simmons’s “Remembering William Goldman” podcast episode multiple times, I decided that I wanted to learn more about William Goldman. So this weekend, I did some light reading on his biography, read old interviews, and watched old interviews. There is a particularly riveting interview he did with the Writer’s Guild Foundation in 2010. In the interview, among many other things, Goldman explains his mantra (coined in his book Adventures in the Screen Trade) “nobody knows anything” and gives the ins and outs of how his career developed in Hollywood while sharing anecdotes about his favorite stars (Paul Newman and Clint Eastwood) and films (Gunga Din).

There are two remarkable parts of the interview. One is when Goldman is describing his childhood and describes how his father descended into alcoholism, committed suicide with a gun, and then how Goldman, as a 15-year-old boy, found him. In the interview, Goldman is an 80 year old man and he says, “It was a fucked up childhood.” There is a graveness, a sense of finality to the way that Goldman says that phrase that strongly intimates, “no follow up questions.” The other remarkable moment, to me, is when Goldman is describing the fact that he has “been a writer for half a century or more” at the time of the interview and how that fact is “insane to [him.]” He consistently references that fact that he showed no signs of talent as a writer and then goes on to say that he hates his own writing, that he has no style, but has a good sense of story and an ear for dialogue. He says the only good things he’s done are The Princess Bride and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.

What is also striking about the interview is the way that Goldman curses. He says “fuck” and “fuckin’” as if he were 28 and 29 years old and not 80 years old. There is a vibrancy to the way he curses—he’s not an old man calling a lawnmower a “fuckin’ piece of shit” because it doesn’t work, he’s still a young man saying, “that movie fuckin’ sucked.” He also calls movies flicks, sometimes correcting himself when he is about to call a movie a film. At another point he refers to a movie as a “turd.”

Goldman’s catchphrase, “nobody knows anything,” refers to Hollywood and the film industry, but really what it is, is a way to free yourself as an artist from falling into decision-fatigue or from finding new ways to avoid working. When nobody knows anything, a principle that goes all the way back to Socrates, there’s no reason why your story can’t be good, can’t find an audience. And in some way that’s how Goldman carries himself. He is self-deprecating about his work, because he knows that even by giving advice or saying “nobody knows anything” he is claiming to know something. So what he does instead (at least in the way he carries himself in this interview) is couch all his advice and posturing in a kind of world-weary, but still impassioned perspective that transmits the following feeling: Life itself is fuckin’ crazy. Since I had no talent and still became who I am, and nobody knows anything, who is to say that I am right about anything—and who is to say anybody else is write about anything. So just fuckin’ write what you want to write. Sometimes it will be a turd and sometimes it will be genius but people will tell you it’s a turd because nobody fuckin’ knows anything so just do what you want to do, but know that it’s hard and it might not work out.

Now that I have spent a long weekend immersed in William Goldman’s biography, his catchphrases, and the high and low points of his career; have spent a weekend listening to Brian Koppelman’s six-second koans of creative advice, I can’t say that my outlook on my writing or my future as a creative person looks any rosier than before the weekend started. If anything, looking back at this past weekend I may just see that it served only as a brief respite from my own self-doubt and self-hate.

And, if I listen enough to William Goldman, I might just finally give myself over to the fact that all that matters is the work because nobody knows anything and sometimes what you think is great might not work; and what you think is terrible might be great; and maybe just once both of those things fall into place and then you have something you enjoy and the world enjoys. But that miraculous alignment still won’t change the fact that you know you’re a phony. And it’s that feeling, that battle, that you live with at the end of the day. That’s the fight that can impact your family. And that’s the thing no interview or Vine can help you figure out.

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